The Lost Tribes of the Irish in the South

Mr. President, and Ladies and Gentlemen: I am speaking but the plain truth when I tell you that I would rather be here tonight facing an assemblage of men and women of Irish blood and Irish breeding than in any other banquet hall on earth. For I am one who is Irish and didn’t know it; but now that I do know it, I am prouder of that fact than of any other thing on earth except that I am an American citizen.

I wonder if it ever occurred to you, what differences are to be found in many a country and in almost any country, between the temperaments and the spirits and the customs of those who live in the north of it and those who live in the south of it? To the north, to Prussia, the German Empire has always looked for its great scientists and its great mathematicians and its propounders and expounders of a certain cool and analytical philosophy; but it was to the south, to Bavaria and to Saxony, that Germany had to turn for its poets and its story-tellers.

It was the north of France that produced and yet produces those men who have harnessed the forces of nature, who have made the earth tremble to the pulse-beat of their factories, who took the ore from the earth and the coal from the hillsides, and with them wrought out the great steel industries of that country; but it was out of the south of France that there came its marvelous fiction writers and minstrel-bards, its greatest poets and its greatest dreamers; and out of that same south once upon a time there came, too, a fiery outpouring of shock-headed men and women who wore wooden shoes on their feet and red caps on their heads and who marched to the words of a song which has become the fighting song of every nation, craving liberty and daring to march and to die for it—the “Marseillaise Hymn.” (Applause.)

The names of the Poid Milanaise and the Lombards and the Venetians of northern Italy are synonymous with frugality in domestic affairs and energy in commercial pursuits, but it is down in the tip of the toe of the Latin boot that we find the Italian who loves the hardest and sings the loudest and fights for the very love of the fighting.

The north of Ireland, as we all know, has fathered the great business men of that little island, and the great manufacturers and the great theologians, many of them; and, regretful to say, it has also produced a spawn of human beings who, in the face of the fact that in every other land where men have equal opportunities, the Irishman has won his way to the front and has held his own with prince and potentate, yet cling to the theory that in Ireland, of all the spots of the world, the Irishman is not capable of governing himself. But it was to the south of Ireland, and it is to the south of Ireland to-day, that one must turn to find the dreamer and the writer, the idealist and the poet. It is to the south of Ireland also that one must turn to seek for a people whose literature and whose traditions are saddened by the memory of the wrongs they have withstood and the persecutions they have endured and still endure, and yet whose spirits and whose characters are uplifted and sanctified by that happy optimism which seems everywhere on this footstool to be the heritage of the true southerner. (Applause.)

In a measure these same things are true of our own country. The north excels in business, but the south leads in romance. The north opens wide the door of opportunity to every man who comes to its borders with willing hands and eager brain, and commands him to get busy. The south opens a door, too, but it is the door of hospitality, and it bids the stranger enter in, not so much for what he can give, but for what he can take in the way of welcome. I think there is a reason, aside from topography and geography and climate and environment, for these differences between the common divisions of our great country. And I am going to come to that reason in a minute.

As a boy, down south, there were two songs that stirred me as no other songs could—one was a song that I loved and one a song that I hated, and one of these songs was the battle hymn of the south, “Dixieland,” and the other was “Marching Through Georgia.” But once upon a time when I was half-grown, a wandering piper came to the town where I lived, a man who spoke with a brogue and played with one. And he carried under his arm a weird contraption which to me seemed to be a compound of two fishing poles stuck in a hot-water bottle, and he snuggled it to his breast and it squawked out its ecstasy, and then he played on it a tune called “Garryowen.” And as he played it, I found that my toes tingled inside my shoes, and my heart throbbed as I thought it could only throb to the air of “Dixie.” And I took counsel with myself and I said, “Why is it that I who call myself a pure Anglo-Saxon should be thrilled by an Irish air?” So I set out to determine the reason for it. And this is the kind of Anglo-Saxon I found out I was:

My mother was of the strain, the breed of Black Douglas of Scotland, as Scotch as haggis, and rebels, all of them, descendants of men who followed the fortunes of Bonnie Prince Charles, and her mother lived in a county in North Carolina, one of five counties where up to 1820, Gaelic was not only the language of the people in the street, but was the official language of the courts. It was in that selfsame part of North Carolina that there lived some of the men who, nearly a year before our Declaration of Independence was drawn up, wrote and signed the Mecklenburg Declaration, which was the first battle-cry raised for American independence.

On the other side, I found, by investigation, that my father’s line ran back straight and unbroken to a thatched cottage on the green side of a hill in the Wicklow Mountains, and his people likewise had some kinsmen in Galway, and some in Dublin with whom, following the quaint custom of their land, they were accustomed to take tea and fight afterwards. (Applause and laughter.) I found I had a collateral ancestor who was out with the pikes in the ’98 and he was taken prisoner and tried for high crimes and misdemeanors against the British Government, and was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until he was dead and might God have mercy on his soul! And he was hanged by the neck until he was dead, and I am sure God did have mercy on his soul, for that soul of his went marching on, transmitting to his people, of whom I am proud to be one, the desire to rebel against oppression and tyranny. (Applause.) I had three great grandfathers, two of them Irish and one of them Scotch, who were Revolutionary soldiers, and I had a father who was a Confederate soldier. And of these facts, too, I am quite proud, for I find that my strain, being Irish, is always intent either on trying to run the government or trying to pull it down.

You Irish-descended people of the Northern States are proud of Shields, an Irish emigrant, who, if my memory serves me aright, helped to direct the destinies of three American commonwealths and was United States Senator from all three. But I like to think of another Irishman, Matthew Lyon by name, the son of an humble Wicklow peasant, who was sold as a redemptioner to the New England plantations; he bought his freedom and became years later a Representative from Vermont, and cast the vote, against the wishes of his constituents, which made Thomas Jefferson President of this country over Aaron Burr and by so doing altered the entire course of our country’s history; and while he was in jail in a town in Vermont for his attacks on the odious alien and sedition laws, he issued a challenge for a duel to the President of the United States, and being released, he moved down to Kentucky and became a Congressman. Later, he moved on to Arkansas and was named as Arkansas’ first territorial delegate to Washington, and he might have moved still further west and might have filled still more offices had he not in the fullness of his maturity, when he was seventy-two years young, passed away. I like to think of Matthew Lyon and his career because he, also, was an ancestor of mine. (Applause and laughter.)

But I kept on working and I discovered a lot of things about the lost tribes of the Irish in the south. The State of Kentucky from which I hail has been called the cradle of the Anglo-Saxon race in America, and it has been said that the mountaineers of that state, with their feuds and their Elizabethan, Chaucerian methods of speech represent the purest strains of English blood to be found to-day on this continent. Now, then, let us see if that is true. I have looked into that matter and I tell you that fifty per cent, at least, of the dwellers of the mountains of the South and notably of Kentucky and Virginia are the lineal descendants of runaway indenture men, Irish rebels mainly, from the Virginia plantations. I know a mountain county in Kentucky of which half of the population bear one of three names. They are either Mayos, or Patricks, or Powers. And I once heard an orator stand up before an audience of those Mayos and Powers and Patricks and congratulate them on their pure English descent, and they believed it! (Laughter.)

I wish you would pardon me once more for referring to my line of ancestry, for it is testimony to prove my claim. On my father’s side I am descended from a group of men who went from New England to Kentucky and the names of these men were Lyon and Cobb, which is a Danish corruption of O’Connor, and Machen, and Clendenin, and O’Hara, and Glenn, which is a corruption of Glynn. What a hot bunch of Anglo-Saxons! (Laughter.)

The Congressional District in which I was born and where I used to live has thirteen counties in it. Listen to the names of these thirteen counties: Marshall, Calloway, Graves, McCracken, Lyon, Livingston, Caldwell, Trigg, Crittenden, Ballard, Hickman, Fulton, Carlisle—thirteen counties and all but two of them have Irish names.

What is true of my own section of Kentucky is true of the rest of the States. Daniel Boone has been called the first explorer of Kentucky and it has been said he was of English descent. Both of those statements are wrong. Daniel Boone was not the first explorer of Kentucky. The first man to explore Kentucky was an Irishman by the name of John Finley. But before him was still another Irishman by the name of McBride—James McBride. He lingers in state history as a shadowy figure, but I like to think of him as a red-haired chap with a rifle in one hand and possibly a demijohn in the other, coming out through the trackless wilderness alone and landing from his canoe on what was afterwards to be known as the Dark and Bloody ground. Aside from his name, it is proven that he was an Irishman by the legendary circumstances that immediately after coming ashore he carved his name in deep and enduring letters in the bark of the largest beech tree of the forest, and claimed all of the land that lay within his vision as his own, and shot an Indian or two and went on his way rejoicing. As for Daniel Boone, the great pathfinder, he really was descended from the line of Buhun, which is NormanIrish, and his mother was a Morgan, and his wife was a Bryan, and his father was an Irish Catholic.

The records show that nearly three-fourths of that dauntless little band who under the leadership of George Rogers Clark, an Irishman, waded through the floods to take Vincennes and thereby won all the great northwest territory away from the British and gave to the American colonies what to-day is the richest part of the United States, where Irishmen—not ScotchIrish, nor English-Irish, but plain Irish-Irish men who were rebels and patriots by instinct, and born adventurers by reason of the blood which ran in their veins.

The first settlement of English-speaking Catholics beyond the Allegheny Mountains was not located in the north but in the south, and in my own state of Kentucky at that. It endures to-day, after having given to this country one of its greatest and most scholarly churchmen, Bishop Spalding. (Applause.) The children of the pioneers of Kentucky, almost without exception, learned their first lessons in log cabins under the teachings of that strange but gifted race of men, the wandering Irish schoolmasters, who founded the old field schools of the South and to whom the South is largely indebted for the seeds of its culture.

Irishmen from Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland bore the brunt of the western campaigns in 1812 against the British. Irishmen from Kentucky fell thick at the disastrous battles of the Thames, and the Raison, and their Irish bones to-day rest in that ground sanctifying it and making of it an American shrine of patriotism. It was the hand of a Kentucky Irishman, Colonel Richard Johnson, afterwards Vice-President of the United States, that slew the great Tecumseh. A good share of the Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen who at New Orleans stood behind Andy Jackson’s cotton bale breastworks, mowing down Pakenham’s Penisular Veterans and making their red coats redder still with the life blood of those invaders, were Irishmen, real Irishmen. They proved their Irish lineage by the fact that they fell out and quarreled with Old Hickory, because he denied them all the credit for winning the fight, and he quarreled back, for he was by way of being an Irishman himself. (Laughter and applause.)

It was a Kentucky Irishman, Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who performed the first operation for ovariotomy—performed it on a kitchen table with a mad husband standing over him with a drawn revolver, threatening to shoot him if his wife died under the knife. But he went ahead and it was a successful operation, and it has brought relief and life and sanity to millions of women all over the world. It was a Kentucky Irishman and a soldier, Theodore O’Hara, who penned perhaps the most beautiful lyric poem, and certainly the sweetest tribute to the brave in our language, the immortal “Bivouac of the Dead.” It was another Kentucky Irishman, the saintly poet-priest, Father Ryan, whose hand wrote those two fondest poems in memory of the Lost Cause, “The Conquered Banner” and “The Sword of Robert E. Lee.”

In the Civil War it was a Kentuckian of Scotch and Irish descent who led the North—Abraham Lincoln—and it was another Kentuckian of mingled Irish and Scotch blood—Jefferson Davis—who was President of the Confederacy. The historian Collins said the five greatest lawyers Kentucky ever produced were Barry, Rowan, Haggin, Breckenridge, and Bledsoe—four Irish names and one Indian name—and yet these five have been called Anglo-Saxons, too.

What is true of Kentucky is to a greater or less degree true of the rest of the South. It was a Virginian Celt, Patrick Henry, who sounded the first keynote of the American Revolution, and who at the risk of his life, by his words paved the way for the Declaration of Independence. The South Carolina Irishman, John C. Calhoun, first raised the slogan of Nullification, and it was another Irishman, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who swore by the Eternal to hang him higher than Haman if he carried out his plan.

To-night you have heard a tribute, and a deserved one, to little Phil Sheridan of the North, but I want to couple his name with that of a Southern Irishman, the son of an Irish refugee, Pat Cleburne of Arkansas, one of the most gallant leaders that the Civil War produced. (Applause.) Pat Cleburne died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of Christendom in his stocking feet because as he rode into battle that morning he saw one of his Irish boys from Little Rock tramping barefooted over the frozen furrows of a wintry cornfield and leaving tracks of blood behind him. So he drew off his boots and bade the soldier put them on, and fifteen minutes later he went to his God in his stocking feet. Raleigh laid down his coat before Good Queen Bess, and has been immortalized for his chivalry, but I think a more courtly deed was that of the gallant Irishman, Pat Cleburne. For one was kowtowing before royalty and the other had in his heart only thoughtfulness and humanity for the common man afoot.

Sam Houston, the first President of the Lone Star State, was a Tennessee Irishman, Irish through and through, and the present President of the United States, a Southerner also, is half Irish. One of the most distinguished members of the Supreme Court in recent years was a Kentucky Irishman, John M. Harlan, and to-day two of the men who sit on that tribunal are Irishmen— White of Louisiana, the distinguished and honored Chief Justice, and McReynolds of Tennessee.

(Voice) How about McKenna?

Mr. Cobb: He is not a Southerner, I regret to say. I suppose I could go on for hours, if your patience held out—and my throat—telling of the achievements of Irishmen, and of the imperishable records that Irishmen have left on the history of that part of the Union from which I came, but to call the roll of the great men who have done great things and won achievement and fame south of Mason’s and Dixon’s line since there was such a line, would be almost like running through the parish registers of the counties of Ireland, both north and south. Indeed, in my opinion, it is not altogether topography or geography or climate that has made the South what it is, and given it those distinguishing characteristics which adorn it. The soft speech of the Southerner; his warm heart, and his hot head, his readiness to begin a fight, and to forgive his opponent afterwards; his veneration for women’s chastity and his love for the ideals of his native land—all these are heritages of his Irish ancestry, transmitted to him through two generations. The North has put her heroes on a pension, but the South has put hers on a pedestal. There is not a Southern hamlet of any size to-day that has not reared a bronze or marble or granite monument to its own defenders in the Civil War, and there is scarce a Southern home where at the knees of the mother the children are not taught to revere the memories and remember the deeds of Lee and Jackson and Forrest, the Tennessee Irishman, and Morgan, the Kentucky Irishman, and Washington, and Light Horse Harry Lee, and Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox of the Carolinas. I believe as firmly as I believe anything on earth that for that veneration, for that love of heroism and for that joying in the ideals of its soil, the South is indebted mainly to the Irish blood that courses through the veins of its sons and of its daughters.

No, ladies and gentlemen, the lost Irish tribes of the South are not lost; they are not lost any more than the “wild geese” that flew across the Channel from Ireland were lost. They are not lost any more than the McMahons who went to France, or the O’Donnells who went to Spain, or the Simon Bolivars and the O’Higgins who went to South America, or the O’Farrells and the O’Briens who went to Cuba. For their Irish blood is of the strain that cannot be extinguished and it lives today, thank God, in the attributes and the habits of and the customs and the traditions of the Southern people. Most of all it lives in one of their common characteristics, which, I think, in conclusion, may possibly be best suggested by the telling of a story that I heard some time ago, of an Irishman in Mobile. As the story goes, this Irishman on Sunday heard a clergyman preach on the Judgment Day. The priest told of the hour when the trumpet shall blow and all peoples of all climes and all ages shall be gathered before the seat of God to be judged according to their deeds done in the flesh. After the sermon he sought out the pastor and he said, “Father, I want to ask you a few questions touching on what you preached about to-day. Do you really think that on the Judgment Day everybody will be there?”

The priest said: “That is my understanding.”

“Will Cain and Abel be there?”

“Undoubtedly.”

“And David and Goliath—will they both be there?”

“That is my information and belief.”

“And Brian Boru and Oliver Cromwell will be there?”

“Assuredly they will be present.”

“And the A. O. H.’s and A. P. A.’s?”

“I am quite positive they will all be there together.”

“Father,” said the parishioner, “there’ll be damn little judgin’ done the first day!” (Applause and laughter.)

About Irvin S. Cobb

Irvin S. Cobb (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, editor and columnist from Paducah, Kentucky, who relocated to New York in 1904, living there for the remainder of his life. He wrote for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, as the highest paid staff reporter in the United States. Cobb also wrote more than 60 books and 300 short stories. Some of his works were adapted for silent movies. Several of his Judge Priest short stories were adapted in the 1930s for two feature films directed by John Ford, with Will Rogers staring in the lead film, Judge Priest. More from Irvin S. Cobb

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